Protect your private life on the Internet
Internet groups are usually harmless in nature, but there is a possible risk factor when it comes to the use of personal information.
By Ole Tom Seierstad
Head of Security, Microsoft Norway
Many Internet users participate in an Internet based community where they can share views and information with others who share their interests. These communities contain distribution lists for e-mails, web areas for blogging, notice boards, news groups and more. By following a few ground rules, both when it comes to Internet habits and when you or your child chooses to join a community online, it is possible to protect your private life and still enjoy the benefits of these groups.Different Internet communities
There are many different types of Internet communities, and they are available via large portals like MSN.com, Yahoo.com, Facebook, AOL and many more. Here are the most common types:
- Distribution lists for e-mail: Also called “e-mail lists” or “groups”. With these services you can read, write and answer e-mail messages about a certain topic, using an e-mail alias. You can also set up new groups.
- Web areas for blogging: A blog (short for “weblog”) is a personal diary online, which everybody can read. Visitors can leave a comment.
- Notice boards and news groups: These web areas are often called “bulletin boards” and are places where members can leave and answer messages between themselves.
- Direct message service: Via a direct message service you can write and send a message, and someone you know can see and answer your message almost immediately on a different computer.
- Chat rooms: Internet fora about specific subjects which usually work in the same way as direct messaging, but which allows whole groups to communicate with each other at the same time, not just one to one.
You have to submit personal information in Internet fora. Usually you have to submit a username, your e-mail address and password when you become a member. You may also be asked to fill in a user profile, where the aim is to build up the community (or for commercial marketing purposes). In these you can be asked to give more personal information like your birth date, address, telephone number, sex, marital status or occupation.
Profiles are public. Some groups allow their members to see lists with other group member’s screen name, and some times their e-mail address or the whole profile. Don’t submit information you don’t wish to share with strangers.
The comments you write will be permanently saved. As you get to know people, the community will begin to feel informal and well-known, and you may feel tempted to talk about family members using their names, divulge where you live, or talk about valuable possessions you have at home. Maybe you’ll mention when the family plan to go on holiday. Even if you’ve been in a community for a long time, you mustn’t fall for a false sense of security.
E-mail swindlers will exploit the sense of trust that often develops in an Internet community, and will try to steal personal information. The more you share in profiles and comments, the more you put yourself in harm’s way when it comes to swindlers, trash mail and identity fraud.How are the users protected?
Here are some functions you can look for when you consider joining an Internet community:
- Guidelines for personal protection that accurately describe what kind of information the service will collect, and how the information will be used.
- Guidelines for users that outline basic behavioural rules. Web areas can then punish those who don’t respect the rules with temporary or permanent blocking of that user.
- Special efforts for children and parents, for example family friendly alternatives, which will contribute to the protection of children under a certain age.
- Password protection to help keep your user account safe.
- Hidden e-mail address, where you only show parts or nothing of your e-mail on the web area’s members-list.
Tools that protect
Depending on what kind of community you join, other alternatives can be available to aid protection of your personal information:
- Filtering alternatives: Offered on web areas for blogging. With these tools you can choose which members can read what you’ve written.
- Blocking of anonymous comments: Offered on web areas for blogging. With this alternative you can block anonymous replies, and thereby hinder malicious or rude users’ ability to hide behind anonymity.
- Logging of IP address: Offered on web areas for blogging. With this service, you can trace which computers rude comments originate from. This enables prosecution if necessary.
- Private communities: With some distribution services for e-mail you can create private e-mail lists. When you’ve created a list, you’ll be the person who decides who is allowed to join, and who is allowed to write or receive messages.
- Alternatives to refuse marketing efforts: These give you the opportunity to choose whether you wish to receive special offers or phone calls from marketers.
- Masking of e-mail address: Some news groups and bulletin boards allow masking. This entails putting a word or a sentence in the middle of your e-mail address, so that automatic e-mail programs that collect e-mail addresses will fail.
- Alternative e-mail address: Consider using an alternative e-mail address for membership, to avoid as much spam as possible in your inbox.